By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 5th Nov 13
Pakistan is being roiled by the killing of Hakimullah Mehsud, executed on Friday by a US drone outside the North Waziristani town of Miranshah. The feared leader of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) was killed at the gates of his house as he returned from a meeting with key aides at a mosque in Miranshah.
Each one of Hakimullah Mehsud’s comrades who met him shortly before his death now knows that the drone’s crosshairs were on them as they discussed a peace talks proposal from Islamabad. They know they are alive only because a Pentagon official decided to execute the strike later, probably to minimise collateral damage.
These putative successors to Hakimullah also know that, since the killing of TTP founder Baitullah Mehsud (no relation to Hakimullah) in 2009, drone strikes have taken out a string of top jihadi leaders, including Maulvi Nazir, Qari Zafar, Qari Hussain and Ilyas Kashmiri. A drone strike in May reportedly killed Hakimullah’s deputy, Wali Rehman Mehsud.
Though the contenders for leadership know they will be marked for death at the moment of their elevation, a succession struggle is reportedly underway within the TTP. Like everything in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which lies along the border with Afghanistan, this is overlaid with tribal politics. According to Pakistani analyst, Daud Khattak, the leading contender is Khan Said, alias Uncle Sajna. Since he is not a Mehsud, he faces a challenge from that influential tribe.
Khattak reports that both the other strong contenders --- Mullah Fazlullah, alias FM Mullah; and Abdul Wali, alias Omar Khalid Khurasani --- are also non-Mehsuds.
For the jihadi leadership, an even greater concern than the drone strikes that whittle away at their ranks is the expansive American network of spies and informants in FATA. Without the ground information provided by these informants, the drones themselves would be far less effective in homing in on prospective targets.
As Mark Mazzetti describes in his book, The Way of the Knife”, these spies draw sustenance from Pakistan Army bases in the tribal areas. Probably for this reason, drone strikes have been particularly effective against the TTP, which has declared war on the Pakistani state and killed hundreds of Pakistani Army soldiers.
Even as the Pakistan Army supports Punjab-based, India-focused outfits like the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), and its proxies in Afghanistan like the Haqqani Network, the generals have understood that there is no choice but to fight groupings like the TTP, which regard the Pakistani establishment as their primary foe.
For that reason, the army’s General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi has been putting out that TTP leaders like Hakimullah Mehsud are in the pay of Indian intelligence agencies. Painting the TTP in Indian colours also helps explain to the Pakistani rank and file why they must now fight jihadis who were historically regarded as allies, and even instruments, against India.
Behind the closed doors of GHQ, therefore, the generals would be silently celebrating the death of a militant leader who has inflicted hundreds of casualties on the Pakistan Army, including the killing of a two-star general in September. Embarrassingly, Shireen Mazari, the shrill and hawkish security advisor of Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI) chief Imran Khan, has publicly demanded that American drones be shot down if they enter Pakistani airspace. The Pakistan Air Force could easily bring down these lumbering aircraft but that is unlikely as long as they stick to “bad militant” targets like Hakimullah Mehsud.
More potentially disruptive is Imran Khan’s threat to halt the movement of convoys that take US military supplies through the PTI-governed Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province to Afghanistan. Pakistan had blocked off this crucial supply route for seven months after 24 Pakistani soldiers were killed in Nov 2011, in a NATO airstrike on army posts on the Pak-Afghan border.
The PTI plans to move a resolution for blocking supply convoys in the KPK assembly. Given that Washington has recently released $1.6 billion in military funding to Pakistan, the military will do what it can to undermine that resolution.
Islamabad, grappling with widespread anti-Americanism across Pakistan, has attacked the US for killing the man who many would agree is that country’s Public Enemy No. 1. Even the most liberal Pakistani commentators have lamented the timing of the strike, coming just before a “peace dialogue” with the TTP. For Islamabad and Rawalpindi, the “peace dialogue” was launched to demonstrate the unreasonableness of the TTP, which was expected to make demands like the imposition of Shariat across Pakistan, the release of all TTP prisoners and the withdrawal of the Pakistan Army from the tribal areas. This, hoped Islamabad, would build public support for a Pakistan Army offensive into North Waziristan. Instead, the killing of Hakimullah Mehsud has provided a good reason for the TTP to call off the talks.